October 19, 2009 | David F. Coppedge

Science News or Tabloid Journalism?

Science news outlets have put out some bizarre headlines recently.  Readers can judge whether they should be blessed with the label “science” or belong instead at supermarket checkouts.

  1. Women are evolving fatter:  New Scientist and PhysOrg said that natural selection is making women shorter, plumper and more fertile.  “The take-home message is that humans are currently evolving,” said Stephen Stearns of the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham, North Carolina.  “Natural selection is still operating.
  2. Killer algae heading north:  Science Daily said that toxic algae was a key player in mass extinctions in the past, and may be threatening us in the age of global warming.  “If you go through theories of mass extinctions, there are always some unanswered questions,” one scientist admitted.  Maybe readers can think of some.
  3. Proton rock brings life to earth:  New Scientist asked, “Was our oldest ancestor a proton-powered rock?”  Nick Lane’s four-page article investigates a controversial theory for the origin of life.  “The last common ancestor of all life was not a free-living cell at all, but a porous rock riddled with bubbly iron-sulphur membranes that catalysed primordial biochemical reactions,” he said.  Then another miracle happened: “Powered by hydrogen and proton gradients, this natural flow reactor filled up with organic chemicals, giving rise to proto-life that eventually broke out as the first living cellsnot once but twice, giving rise to the bacteria and the archaea.”  Nobody was there, unfortunately, to watch the show.  Lane had to admit, “Many details have yet to be filled in, and it may never be possible to prove beyond any doubt that life evolved by this mechanism.
  4. Aliens inhabit alternate plane:  PhysOrg said that two scientists have calculated the “number of parallel universes.”  An impressive equation enhances the article.  The answer: 10 to the 10 to the 16 universes are out there, even though we’ve never seen them or can see them.  “If that number sounds large, the scientists explain that it would have been even more humongous, except that we observers are limited in our ability to distinguish more universes” otherwise it could be a whopping 10 to the 10 to the 10 to the 7.
  5. Hot rock in India slams dinosaurs kablooey:  Remember the Mexican impact crater that was the cause of the dinosaur demise?  That’s so 1985.  It’s much more hip now to say that a bigger blast in India did the reptiles in.  Science Daily has the scoop.
  6. Mysterious dark force is shuffling dark stuff around that may not exist:  PhysOrg reported on a scientist’s idea that “an unknown force is acting on dark matter,” which, by definition, is also unknown.  A team at U of St. Andrews “believes that the interactions between dark and ordinary matter could be more important and more complex than previously thought, and even speculate that dark matter might not exist and that the anomalous motions of stars in galaxies are due to a modification of gravity on extragalactic scales.”

Today’s science also has its holy relics.  PhysOrg reported on an “evolution axe” going on display at the Natural History Museum in London.  “The axe that revealed the age of mankind” was discovered the same year Darwin published his Origin and was used to support the idea that human history extended farther into the past than the Bible allowed.  “The hand axe display is timely as it coincides with this year’s celebration of Charles Darwin’s 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species and 200th anniversary of his birth,” the article cheered.  “There are nationwide events taking place as part of a [sic] initiative called Darwin200.”

Any sociologists out there?  Do a little experiment.  Start a hoax in the name of science and see if the news outlets report it.  They don’t seem to have any restrictions on what can be claimed in the name of science.  Just make it look authoritative, like a major university press release, with a little convincing jargon.  Other than that it can be as wacko as you like.  What would be really constructive would be to put on so many hoaxes at once that it would require intelligent design to sort out the true from the false.  Would any of these stories survive?
    The list above is an illustration of the legacy of post-Darwinism.  Darwin ousted the hard-liners and let in the storytellers.  Instead of being homeless on the street with their stories, they get paid to do this.  They are given free Darwin incense to liberate their imaginations.  Nothing needs to be observable, testable or repeatable any more.  The inmates are running the asylum.  They’re stoned, not with opium, but with OPM (other people’s money).  Remember this when they try to define what crazy is.

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